Discipline for Children in a Divorce

Divorce Pair Should Agree On Discipline
by Honorable Anne Kass. Ann Kass is a District Judge in the Second Judicial District State of New Mexico

The discipline of children is a frequent source of post-divorce litigation. When divorced parents have different opinions about how to manage their children's behavior, they often go to court expecting the court to approve one approach and forbid the other.

Most frequently one parent claims the other's discipline methods are abusive. On occasion one parent will claim the other is overindulgent.

These cases are particularly difficult for courts to address. Child discipline is a topic about which there are widely differing expert views, and courts are hard pressed to sort through the many points of view and from them logically pick one standard of parental behavior. Moreover, even if a court were able to set a clear, logical standard, it is impossible for courts to monitor compliance with that standard because parenting behavior occurs in private settings where neutral observers do not exist. This can lead to multiple court proceedings in which the allegations and responses are couched in "did too, did not" terms as one parent claims the other violated a court order, and the accused parent denies it.

However, the common way these quarrels over discipline methods will usually play out is that the children gravitate to the parent who is more lenient because children vote with their feet.

To try to prevent children rejecting one parent, courts often recommend parenting education with both parents directed to take the same course of study or to read the same book. The goal is to develop common, similar parenting styles. Interestingly, most parenting educators will encourage parents to adopt a non-coercive parenting style. That is, they recommend against physical punishment.

Dr. Kodituwakku of our Court Clinic explains that corporal punishment is seen to be ineffective because coercion tends to create an external gauge of right and wrong, where the goal should be to have a child develop an internal conscience. A child needs to refrain from certain conduct not because of fear of being caught, but because of an inner voice advising that the behavior is wrong.

Corporal punishment, Dr. Kodituwakku says, works much the same as speeding laws do. Drivers tend to operate at the speed limit only when they have reason to believe a police officer is in the vicinity, feeling no sense of remorse when caught and continuing the misbehavior when no officer is around to see. So too with children whose moral sense comes from the outside.

Consistency between the homes of divorce parents is often difficult to achieve, but consistency is a worthwhile goal, especially consistency in discipline.


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